Andrei Tarkosky's "The Mirror": A Critical Analysis

Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’ is a sui-generis work of cinematic art where the auteur rebels with a sense of transcendent nostalgia against his own real life-world experience thereby obtaining a filmmaker’s eternal utopia of capturing the infinite within the finite, the formless nature of memories birthing the formed filmic representation – an ideal oneiric phantasmagoria of deliberate confusion that elasticizes the concept of time thereby opening up a portal for the viewers to reminisce their own life’s introspections and intersections of actual and dreamt-up memories alongside Tarkovsky’s own.

Synopsis – ‘Mirror’ tells the story of the pain suffered by one man because he feels he cannot repay his family for all they have given him. He feels he hasn't loved them enough, and this idea torments him and will not let him be
Mirror’ is a semi-autobiographical film of the director himself and deals with the filmmaker’s philosophy of ‘film-image as art’, which he elaborates further in his book ‘Sculpting In Time’.  The basic philosophy is that the process of editing disturbs the ‘truth’ and therefore it is through a ‘distortion’ of time that a filmmaker can effectively convey his message to the audience. Tarkovsky has intended Mirror to be seen as a Mobius-strip rhythmical expression of the Present giving birth to the Past in the form of Memories and the nature of Future as something that is always ‘becoming’ and therefore never is. Multiple viewings will yield multiple interpretations but the fundamental core of Mirror is a story about any and every Man who inhabits the Earth who must come face-to-face with himself and understand his responsibilities to his past and his future.

Why does Tarkovsky’s movies affect viewers in such a ‘specific’ way? This was the question I had before writing this review. Critics and other film directors describe Tarkovsky’s cinema as ‘hypnotic’ and ‘sacred’ while the audiences find it to be either revolting or genuinely artistic and full of meaning. I fall into the latter category and find his cinema to be utmost meaningful and philosophical.

One of the many fan letters Tarkovsky received for Mirror was from a
working woman from Novosibirsk, southern city in Russia who wrote:
'I've seen your film four times in the last week. And I didn't go simply to see it, but in order to spend just a few hours living a real life with real artists and real people. . . . Everything that torments me, everything I don't have and that I long for, that makes me indignant, or sick, or suffocates me, everything that gives me a feeling of light and warmth, and by which I live, and everything that destroys me—it's all there in your film, I see it as if in a mirror. For the first time ever a film has become something real for me, and that's why I go to see it, I want to get right inside it, so that I can really be alive.'
With ‘Mirror’ Tarkovsky relentlessly strips off the narrative spine of filmmaking - storyline, characters, scenes, dialogues, poems, hypothesis, newsreels are instead interlaced into several different time zones so as to create an organic unity of idea and form. The cinematic art form being the director’s own vinculum-amoris connected to the audience – Mirror is a sculpture of memories, dreams and feelings (above all else) for the audience to savor and a showcase of the ethical ideals of the director as a human being.

Initially, it was to be a novella about the Soviet Union wartime evacuation, and the plot was to be centered on the military instructor at Tarkovsky’s school however thinking it was too trivial he abandoned it. Then he thought of it as a cinematic text and wrote  A White, White Day’ – the initial title of the film. However, Tarkovsky did not want to simply film a recollection of sad childhood memories that plagued him but something more substantial – hence he wrote a second draft after interviewing his Mother – thereby giving the viewer two versions of memories of two people close to each other albeit from a different generation.
I will go through a few themes that will help the viewer make sense of all the evocative and talismanic image-riddles in the film.
Main Characters in Mirror
The film traverses three generations and depending on the timezone (1930s, at the dacha; 1940s, events of World War II; 1970s, narrator’s apartment) distinct characters are played by an array of different actors as well as an array of characters are played by one distinct actor thereby creating some confusion however this is simply to illustrate the concept of continuation of a certain spiritual unity between the generations. The oldest is the Mother (called Maroussia or Masha or Maria), and the youngest is Ignatand our Narrator/Hero Alexei (also called Alyosha sometimes) the middle generation.
Alexei/Alyosha: Son of Maroussia, Brother of Marina, Husband of Natalya, Father of Ignat.
Maroussia/Masha/Maria: Mother of Alexei/Alyosha, Mother of Marina, Mother-in-law of Natalya (who looks as she did at her age), Grandmother of Ignat.
Natalya: Wife of Alexei, Mother of Ignat, Daughter-In-Law of Maroussia
Ignat: Son of Alexei and Natalya, Grandson of Maroussia

Stranger 1 : Resembling the poetess Anna Akhmatova though Tarkovsky has disavowed this symbolism and instead says the woman represents a mender of the torn threads of time thereby signifying a bond between the past and present
Stranger 2 : ‘Fate’ of the Narrator/Hero

Summer 1935, before WWII : Mother of the Narrator sitting languidlly on a fence, smoking a cigarette and staring into the distance of the Ignatvevo forest stretching before her. The golden-pink setting sun inspires nostalgia for the past.
Man is gifted with memory but it is also through his memories that disappointment and dissatisfaction are given birth.
Tarkovsky’s first memory was 'Mum, there's a cuckoo!' at the age of four. As an individual I’m sure each of us would have something equally precious as a memory, which is unique to our own life experience. Why use childhood memories as a theme in a movie? Childhood is what activates memory, it is the cradle of the house of memory and Tarkovsky’s life-history breaks down into images palettable to an alien viewer who may have no common grounds otherwise with the auteur.
There is a vast difference between remembering the house you were born in and then visiting it after a number of years – this confrontation with the origin of the memory destroys the poetry of it. The film plays as mosaic of memories coloured with poetry through reconstructing emotional atmospheres and thereby not destroying the poetry of the memory. These were some of the principles of memory that became a starting point for Mirror.
He was heavily fascinated and invested in the challenges of this developing poetic-memory logic and therefore it made it easier for him to take away the narrative spine and replace it with something, if placed in the film – would act like one – an invisible working spine. Andrei found the solution – an absent Hero for the majority of the film. Instead of showing the viewer the protagonist – Andrei sculpts and colors the Hero’s identity through his memories, his thoughts and his dialogues with his Mother and Wife who in the movie are shown as one and the same actor – reason being that his Wife is a continuation of his Mother. Therefore a graphic and clearly defined‘persona’ is built of our Hero.
Tarkovsky was 43 years old during the production of the film and the farmstead shown in the film where he grew up was destroyed and in ruins, it therefore had to be reconstructed using old photographs and it was built in the exact likeness on the exact foundations, which had miraculously survived.
How does one convey the unreality of a dream using the medium of film? What about it’s content, it’s logic? In our mind’s eye, we can process the abstractions of dreams but to film it effectively requires more than conventional gimmickry. For Andrei, it was about creating obsessive emotional atmospheres, which he could adjust for the overall filmic effect of the truths he was trying to communicate. He wanted his audience to know that there were no clandestine secrets he had – no mystery or magic as a creator of art.It is said that the less accessible a work is to the intellect, the greater it is. This misfortune befalls Mirror but Andrei’s emotional persuasiveness is credible and thanks to this we are able to appreciate it.
Looking at a mirror is equivalent to the paradoxical nature of the inner mixture of dreams and chaos manifested in front of us as our identity. The title ‘Mirror’ implies an act of reflection, and this film can be viewed as Alexei’sand his Mother’s contemplations on their lives - simultaneously interchangeable and therefore using cinematic narrative undecidability and juxtaposing storytellers.
As the film progresses we learn that the hero of Mirror was a weak, selfish man incapable of loving even those dearest to him for their sake alone, looking for nothing in return—he is only justified by the torment of soul which assails him towards the end of his days as he realizes that he has no means of repaying the debt he owes to life.
Towards the ending we see the Mother looking into the future and she sees her Old self with her son and daughter walking through the field which is actually a kind of phantasmagoria of Alexei, who on his death-bed, thinks of his beginning when he is in his mother’s womb, safe and protected. He is imagining about his mother imagining about her children. Alexeiimagines his mother fantasizing that she would have two kids and they remain as kids eternally.
Time is a living, breathing entity throughout the various shots in the film – imploding and exploding of time-related emotions and memories of Tarkovsky. The viewer must experience time like the physical body must experience the life-world of it’s generation thereby becoming an assembler of the traces of his/her life-world-memories. While in a cinema hall, the viewer essentially loses private time and becomes an observer thus suspending his/her linear sense of personal temporality. This elasticity of time is alien and therefore hypnotic.

Tarkovsky lures the viewer into an experience of what the end of time might be like in the most banal of scenes. Ignat, the son of our Hero, is reciting a letter regarding the Christian destiny of Russia to two strangers who seem like guests but are not. There is a close-up of the disappearance of a humid ring of vapour left by a cup of tea by one of the strangers who is a manifestation of the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (or is a healer of past and present times as stated above). During this sequence, there is a rise of loud voices that imprints a momentous memory in the mind of the viewer that is echoed even after it stops as we hear this echo in our minds when there is absolute silence - The sound seems to pass ‘out of time’ it seems and thereby oneirically giving us an experience of the end of time.

The first scenes of the stuttering boy being cured through hypnosis represents Tarkovsky as a storyteller who has been orphaned from the house of memory (through himself being distorted by the noise of time)being temporarily cured and able to initiate his film that itself deals with the shattered experience of memories.

I often wonder if this is the most beautiful film ever made. The historical subjectivity of Mirror (the author, the narrator, the family, the people) is not an ideal image of unity that already exists but one which can be awakened into the self-consciousness of the viewer through film and to me that is a daring achievement by Tarkovsky.
The hallucinatory levitating-repose of sleep : Certain kinds of experiences do not belong to any one character’s memory or lived-experience but are carried outside of subjectivity in a hall of communicating mirrors. 
About Author - 

A lifelong fan of the magical world of cinema, Amit's love for film is owed entirely to discovering Francis Ford Coppola’s 'The Godfather' as a teen. His lists/reviews aim to share his opinion on films that made an impression on him. He can be contacted at

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